When I was writing it the other day, I thought Thursday’s post would be the last I’d have to say about the ideas I’ve been mulling over in For Marx. But as I was thinking yesterday, there’s one surprising way I can use that grid.
That's a curious way to talk about a piece of philosophy – as something you can use. Especially considering the life the career of the person whose work was where I found it.
However much Louis Althusser styled himself an activist and participated in France’s Communist Party, he was always primarily a professor. He wrote. Quite often, he wrote some pretty heavy, technical shit. Dense essays that packed complicated ideas and analyses into long sentences, complex prose.
When he did try to use his writing for political purposes, that style of erudite intelligence slips away. Instead, he spews the most transparent propaganda. It doesn’t even sound authentic to his own voice anymore. Althusser was that introverted hyper-nerd who was most alive when writing furiously dense technical marxist philosophy.
Political advocacy? The kind of writing that most people could read without years of education preparing you for it was beyond him. At least it was beyond him as something where he could be successful.
Because when Althusser’s “Marxism and Humanism” paper gets into his defence of the Soviet Union, he loses his own plot. The lies of his propaganda are transparent. Cheap, even. At first, I thought it was weird to see his tone change so radically and so quickly. And in the same essay as an insightful summary of his own work on Marx’s own intellectual development.
Then I realized what made those sections of naked propaganda so strange – yet also so authentically Althusser’s. They express his own ideology, the statements of his own dogma. They’re his abstract thought, the beliefs that he can’t even conceive of questioning himself.
That’s the practical political purpose of the grid – Theory, Practice, Ideology, Dogma. First, it’s a tool to identify what’s real, engaging political thinking and talk that’s actively trying to understand and change the world. And it can identify the political discourse that isn’t meant to be thought about, only repeated strategically to identify who lies inside and outside your group, your tribe.
But it can also be a tool to measure your own progress. It can help you identify the few elements in mostly dogmatic talk that can grow into genuine theory and practice if you let it.
The precious moments in the cheap discourse of politics where you can leave the horse races and tribalisms behind to build and start a powerful conversation about the shape of society and how we’re to live. Transitioning from one to the next in that description is transforming dogma and ideology into theory and practice.
Transforming cheap talk that divides and sows violence into a path of progress, peace, and understanding. That's what all political activists ultimately have to do if they care about democracy at all.